It is everyone’s business that a current member of Parliament was arrested on a handful of serious – and some violent – charges. Perhaps it would have been a private matter if a private citizen had found himself in legal trouble. But it is of public concern when a legislator spends a night in jail, unbeknownst to his constituents, and returns to government business as if nothing happened.
One day after his bail hearing, Ontario MP Marwan Tabbara went on Facebook to thank front-line workers for their efforts during the continuing pandemic. He did not mention, however, that some of those frontline workers had him in handcuffs only one day earlier. In fact, it would be another two months before Canadians would learn – and only in response to media inquiries – that Mr. Tabbara was arrested back in April and charged with criminal harassment, break and enter and multiple charges of assault.
At the time of writing, Guelph, Ont., police have not responded to specific inquiries from The Globe and Mail and others about why the media was not informed two months ago about the arrest of the Kitchener South—Hespeler MP. Citing the matter as “before the courts,” the service’s public information officer told the National Post Monday that there would be no further statements about the matter. That means no further clarification on why, for example, Guelph police have periodically issued media releases about bicycle thefts, impaired driving and assault charges, but apparently chose not to ensure that the public knew a sitting member of Parliament was charged with a handful of serious offences.
This is a distinctly Canadian feature of law enforcement – one of inexplicable opaqueness and secrecy essentially by default. On record collection, record-keeping and disclosure, Canada lags behind other developed countries on everything from racial data, to use of force, to sexual assault tracking, to tracing guns used in crimes. Data usually has to be specifically requested by journalists, though it is only sometimes provided.
The RCMP in particular is notoriously tight-lipped on major incidents and crimes, despite a decade-old recommendation from the RCMP Reform Implementation Council that “the principle should be that people are informed whenever possible, rather than that they are informed only when necessary.” That didn’t happen in November, 2018, when two senior staff in the B.C. Legislature were suddenly put on leave amid an RCMP investigation with virtually no explanation from police.
It didn’t happen in the aftermath of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April, 2018, when the absence of official information allowed false rumours to proliferate about the offending driver somehow fleeing the country. And it didn’t happen in the aftermath of the horrific Nova Scotia rampage this past April, when family members of the deceased were denied the most basic information about their loved ones, and when police initially declined questions about the source and types of firearms used – even though, with the perpetrator dead, there was no criminal investigation to compromise.
This institutional attitude toward disclosure (or lack thereof) is so entrenched – both among police and among the general public – that these things become normal. Police offer a catch-all phrase: “We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation,” which functions to shut down all lines of inquiry from media, even when some lines of inquiry – for example, questions about why the arrest of an MP was not communicated to the media – aren’t really about the specifics of a case at all.
To be sure, it was incumbent on Mr. Tabbara first and foremost to disclose his arrest to his party whip and to his constituents. That didn’t happen, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who said they only found out about Mr. Tabbara’s charges when they were reported in the media.
Mr. Tabbara resigned from the Liberal caucus shortly after news broke of his arrest, although he has decided to remain an MP to “continue to work diligently” for his constituents – the same ones he lied to by omission for the past couple of months.
That decision ought to highlight why the role of police in this case should be more than mere merchants of arrest and guardians of secrets. Canadians have a right to know when those elected to represent them have been charged with serious and violent crimes. And because the accused cannot be trusted to put the public’s welfare above his own, the onus is on police – whose job it is to maintain public order – to ensure the community is notified and updated. There’s no way for police to go back in time and do that now, but I believe there are a few questions still waiting for answers.
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